Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset tells the story of Yvonne Gallis, a working class girl from Monaco, who came to Paris in 1918 at the age of twenty-six, looking for adventure and romance. Working at the salon, Jove, known for dressing the higher ranks of the ‘oldest profession’, she caught the eye of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, later to be known as Le Corbusier, the world famous architect.
This book, told from her point of view, traces the course of their relationship from the early, happy days in the Rue Jacob in St Germain, through to the end of her life in 1957. It is not simply the story of an archetypal ‘odd couple’ but also a beautiful depiction of France during a war-torn part of its history.
At the core of the book lies the mystery of human attraction. Which one of us hasn’t looked at a couple we know and wondered what on earth they see in each other and why they stay together? Down to earth and not particularly interested in art or ‘Ed’s’ (as he was called in his family) buildings or books, Yvonne was an unsophisticated working-class girl, who managed to capture the heart of a rich and sophisticated man. And what did Ed see in her? Maybe a woman who would accept that he did not want children, (“my career will always have to come first … I’ll be away so much researching and building.”), a woman who would tolerate his extremely long absences and a woman who would endure him doing pretty much exactly as he pleased – an affair with Josephine Baker is hinted at and one presumes there were others. He must also have been struck by her beauty and her spirit. At one point Le Corbusier rather chillingly comments:
“We are influenced by every object around us so it’s vital to make sure that we live with only beautiful things that function properly because only those items will bring us happiness.”
Yvonne however, although certainly beautiful, is a human being with human needs and eventually she does start to ‘malfunction’. First she is removed from Rue Jacob, which she adores, to an apartment in one of Le Corbusier’s buildings out in Porte Molitor in Boulogne-Billancourt. Then as war breaks out he parks her in Vézelay, while trying to get work with the Vichy government and travelling to Algeria. After the war is over, Le Corbusier stays away longer and longer, travelling to amongst other places, South America, the United States and India and the wire-haired schnauzer, Pinceau, although much loved, is no substitute for his presence. She misses her husband and turns to the bottle for comfort. Finally, he hires a man servant, Luan, to look after her and try to control her drinking during his absences. Arguments increase, plates are thrown but they stay together.
One of the clues as to why Yvonne accepts her situation is perhaps provided by two revealing scenes with their respective mothers, a fairly ghastly pair. When Yvonne finally gets to meet Ed’s snobby, chilly mother, Madame Jeanneret says:
“Edouard is very taken with you and of course you are a very lucky girl to have met a man like him.”
Later, when she takes Ed to meet her parents in Monaco, her own mother’s vicious disapproval and criticism of her, everyone and everything makes Yvonne’s sick to her stomach. In fact in the context of her family it seems amazing that she has emerged with her joie de vivre in tact and it makes her attachment to Le Corbusier very understandable. At least she knows that she is loved and she is materially looked after.
There is a lot of gentle humour here as well. When Ed shows her a sexually explicit sketch of a woman, she asks him why he’s been out buying pornography. On being told he’s been given the sketch by Picasso who “had heard he was in love with a voluptuous woman and he thought he’d appreciate it,” she sighs and says “Well, he’s really very famous these days so I suppose we can at least sell it.” Visiting the new apartment for the first time, she is bewildered by the bidet, which is out in the bedroom next to her dressing table and not particularly taken by a bed which has metal legs a meter high. Le Corbusier may be a visionary and ‘a god’ to some people but he never manages to sort out the leaking roof of the house he built for his parents.
In the end I was left wondering if Yvonne wouldn’t have been happier if she’d never met him and instead married a working class Parisian boy and had the large family she craved. At least then she wouldn’t have had to have a marble dining room table that was designed with the idea of a mortuary slab in mind. When, towards the end of her life, he builds her “a palace by the sea” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it is a tiny shed with a narrow bed, the head of which is close to the toilet bowl.
You don’t have to be interested in Le Corbusier, architecture or the history of France to enjoy this beautifully written book, although if you are you’ll find a great deal to savour; Loving Le Corbusier is for anyone who has ever wondered about love and the strange workings of the human heart. At the end I was left thinking that if there is a moral to be drawn from the book it is perhaps that, if a man claims he is a visionary, it might be a good idea to give him as wide a berth as possible. However, I may be influenced by an inability to forgive Le Corbusier for what he did to Pinceau. No, I’m not going to tell you. Read the book to find out!
Below is the link to Colin’s website which has lots of fantastic photos and writing about Le Corbusier’s buildings.
Here’s the amazon link for the book:
And here is Colin on twitter: